Health’s technological revolution
Robots and artificial intelligence are often seen as a threat to workers but Jordan Nguyen told Annual Conference that new technologies also provide positive possibilities in healthcare.
A wheelchair controlled by someone’s thoughts and virtual reality that can help someone with a severe spinal cord injury walk again aren’t science fiction fantasies. According to Jordan Nguyen, a biomedical engineer and inventor who opened the conference’s Professional Day, they are happening right now.
Jordan’s first invention, a mind-controlled wheelchair, came about after a pool diving accident in his final year of university left him temporarily unable to move. He started to think about mobility, and wondered if we could harness the “electrical signals of the brain picked up in EEGs and used in analysis and diagnosis and instead use them for control”.
Working with his engineer father, Jordan used a headband that picks up brain signals from the occipital and parietal lobes. He put those signals through a computer on the wheelchair, and the computer runs them through algorithms that can find patterns in the brainwaves.
“We tested it out on 20 people in 2011 and 2012 and we ended up with a wheelchair which could be controlled using thoughts,” explained 33-year-old Jordan.
“The wheelchair itself was made as a robot – it carries out your commands while making the travel safe.”
Cameras built into the wheelchair perceive its environment, he explained, allowing the chair to move through a process of “shared control, where the operator and the robot are sharing control over the operation, but the wheelchair is still doing what the person wants it to do”.
Jordan, who has been a finalist for Australian of the Year, spoke passionately about the potential for new technologies to make revolutionary changes in health care, particularly as different technologies converge.
“In the past disruptive tech-nologies would come decades apart; now technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, genetics … are coming all at once.”
Helping people fulfil their dreams
Jordan also spoke about his collaboration with his friend Jessica Irwin, a photographer and graphic designer who was born with a high level of cerebral palsy. When he accompanied Jessica to a concert by the Australian band Noiseworks and she confessed that performing music on stage was her “dream”, Jordan invented a way for her to make music.
Working with a small team he developed an eye control tool that “connects to a computer and tracks what your eyes are looking at on the screen. [Then] we designed the software for it that allowed Jess to play music with her eyes”.
Six weeks later Jessica was performing a sold-out show at the Sydney Opera House with the Australian Piano Quartet. Not long afterwards she performed on stage with her idol, Noiseworks’ Steve Balbi, in front of three and a half thousand people. Jessica has since released a single with Balbi.
The pace of technological change means that where development time would once take years, it can now take weeks or even days, Jordan explained. The computer processing power we have and the tools and apps available online are freeing up the next generation to have “more time for creative development”.
“The information is there. It’s about how quickly we can access it and verify it, and then how we utilise it. This allows us to move into those creative areas and use our imagination to start thinking big.”
On a recent visit to China, Jordan tested a prototype for a drone that can airlift people to hospital in emergencies, bypassing traffic, and saw autonomous electric vehicles that don’t take their sensors off the road and have the potential to minimise the rate of road crashes.
In a recent report for the ABC’s Catalyst program, Jordan visited spinal cord injury patients who are learning to walk again using a combination of virtual reality and electrical stimulation of the legs.
He told the story of Angus, who suffered a complete spinal cord injury from the chest down after being hit by a car while bike riding. While therapists move his legs and stimulate them electrically, Angus wears a headset and holds hand pieces that take him to a virtual world where he is climbing Mount Everest. Using this form of therapy Angus has been able to stand and take tentative steps.
Although the effect of virtual reality in therapy for spinal cord injuries isn’t exactly understood yet, “we think it does something strange to the brain that … is somewhere between the placebo effect and neuroplasticity”, Jordan says.
“For some reason there is a connection that starts to form when the person believes they are strong enough to start to stand and walk again.”
Rather than thinking about the dystopian potential of futures where robots and artificial intelligence are out of control, Jordan inspired the audience of NSWNMA members and delegates with a vision of a future where these technologies are giving people back control in the lives once again.
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